Lexicon of Theological Concepts
Faith vs. Belief. The terms “faith” and “belief” have often been used interchangeably both in the Bible and in conversation. However, they are not the same thing.
Belief is simply acceptance of the truth of a particular proposition, but the intensity of that belief may vary.
Faith, on the other hand, is belief so strong that it changes a person’s behavior.
Abraham was seen by God as righteous due to his faith, in the famous formulation found in Genesis 15.6. Notice that his belief in God’s command to sacrifice his son was so strong that he was willing to do it, even though he didn’t want to. When God saw that belief become action (the downward motion of Abraham’s knife), God called it “faith,” and declared that Abraham was a righteous man (today we would say "saved"). To say that one merely believes in God cannot be satisfying to God (although it is a necessary first step) because no proof of the belief is demonstrated. Only when one does something that accords with the will of God can one say that that action is “an act of faith” and only after one performs many such actions can we say that the person is generally “faithful,” or "righteous." God judges the degree.
When one does something within God’s will that she would really rather not do, but does because she believes that God wishes it, is God especially pleased. Contrarily, when one stops doing something that displeases God but which one would really rather continue doing, one also demonstrates strong faith, and that pleases God as well.
God calls everyone to do four things: to act charitably and kindly; to avoid sin and uphold the moral order of the universe; and to perform one’s “calling,” the actions that employ the gifts given to one by God; and to encompass these three with prayer and Scripture-reading.
When Jesus failed to perform healings in an area or for a person because he sensed a lack of faith, the meaning is probably that those people were not living with kindness, were too deep in sin, or were not tending to their “calling.”
This difference between “belief” and “faith” is seen most clearly in the Gospel of John where “belief” appears a remarkable 84 times while the word “faith” doesn’t appear at all. (See The Gospel of John at this website.)
Righteousness. Being righteous means that one has pleased God and that God looks upon one with favor. How is righteousness achieved? By acting righteously. A person cannot act righteously all the time of course; God’s favor comes with His overall judgement of someone’s life. If one has a prayer life, if one follows a calling, if one shows genuine concern about others, if one avoids gross sin, practices forgiveness and compassion, and refrains from acts of revenge, then God will certainly consider one to be righteous.
It is very dangerous for human beings to decide whom God considers to be righteous, and who is not. Jesus taught that we should be able to discern good fruit from thorns, but human judgment is not always reliable.
Salvation. One is “saved,” or “goes to heaven,” if one is “righteous.” Both the Old Testament and the words of Jesus in the New Testament call upon people to change attitudes and actions in order to do the will of God, thus implying that one has a choice to do or not to do God’s will.
“Salvation” also connotes a belief in Hell, from which a person can be “saved.” However, Jesus never says that anyone “goes to Hell.” He says that sinners will go to “genhenna,” which was a term used to describe Jerusalem’s city dump. Thus, going to genhenna is a metaphor for an undesirable consequence. When his words were translated into Greek, the word “Hades” was substituted for genhenna, and when translated into Latin, the Latin word “Inferno” was used. When translated into English, the word "Hell" was used, thus significantly changing the original intent of the passage from something vaguely unfortunate to eternal fiery torture.
Another definition of “salvation” involves the idea that each person is “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26) and therefore is aware of both good and evil. There is a spark, perhaps a dim spark, in our natures. We are also given the ability to make choices about our actions (Genesis 3:6) as Adam demonstrated. Disobeying God’s will means that we will suffer negative consequences and feel bad about our behavior because our divine nature is abused. Sinful behavior brings unhappiness, guilt, and can eventually culminate in self-loathing. It is this state which we define as Hell and it is this state from which God offers salvation through his grace. When our actions conform to God’s will, something divine stirs within us. We feel good about our action and ourselves. When one acts right, one feels good and desires to act right again and again. When one becomes dedicated to right actions, the repetition of good behavior satisfies the better spirit within and one becomes the light that no bushel can cover and the salt that makes life worthwhile as Jesus described. In this state, one is given an intimation of Heaven. Jesus probably meant this when he announced the Kingdom of God in the Gospels of Mark and Luke (or Heaven in Matthew’s gospel).
Grace. The term comes from the root meaning “to give.” God gives gifts, such as his Word, his love, and his Spirit, all of which guide us in this confusing life.
The End of the World; the Day of Judgment; the Apocalypse. A human dream that occurs especially in dark times or in dark personal moods. It was originally to occur immediately after the death of Jesus or “soon” thereafter as Paul explains. After waiting two millennia, we can certainly say that it will not occur as predicted. The belief in a Day of Judgment has led to much misunderstanding and trouble in the world. It has been responsible for much dispute in the past and is most troublesome today in its Islamic expression.
Heaven and Hell. First, by common understanding we must recognize that these states exist in the here-and-now. Heaven and Hell are not places; they are states of mind, but nevertheless, quite real. Most people have experienced both joy and despondency in their lives. As described in near-death experiences, these conditions also exist after death. The Good News is that God wants us to stay out of hell and move into heaven, and He will assist us in that endeavor if asked.
The Kingdom of God. Jesus said that he came to teach about the Kingdom of God. It is God’s will to make earth like heaven, to return earth to a Garden of Eden-like state where people work -- tending the garden -- in harmony with each other and with God. Thus, the world is slowly conforming to God’s will as people act in accordance with and are directed by the Holy Spirit and God’s laws, including the ethical teachings of Jesus.
The Kingdom of God was first understood to be David’s kingdom or its reestablishment. By the time of Jesus, it was expected to come after the expulsion of the Romans from Israel (the Holy Land) which would be a miraculous event led by a militant Messiah from the lineage of David. The purity of God’s Kingdom would thus be restored and the Chosen People could then begin their outreach to the gentiles. But with the obvious failure of that restoration in the failed Jewish Rebellion of CE 66 to 70, or later, we must look for another definition.
The usual Christian view is that Jesus came to reveal the secret of the availability of the invisible Kingdom of God. He said “The Kingdom is at hand,” meaning that it was available immediately. His words conflict with the common conception of the Kingdom as a future state, thus leading to the confusing phrase “Now, but not yet.” When Jesus cured people of maladies he often commented, “The Kingdom of God has come near you today.” This apparently meant that God’s Holy Spirit was at work in the world, healing, encouraging, and helping people live according to God’s will.
Luke reports Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), thus supporting the idea of an invisible Kingdom, a state of mind and being, that is “at hand.” Some of Jesus’s most evocative parables concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, such as the parable of the Lost Treasure, characterize it as something so wonderful that one would give anything to obtain it for oneself. For Christians, that means it is a personal, internal attainment, not a political event.
Christianity is comprised of four main commandments: be a kind person; avoid sin; and to do the “calling” that God has given each person, including, for most people, to raise children and teach them of God’s will, all accompanied by prayer and Scripture study. If each person did those four things, we might see something of what Jesus had in mind.
The Resurrection. When Jesus was crucified and died it seemed that his message had been false, but when he appeared after his death, the message became believable again. His appearances energized the disciples, as it did Paul years later.
Did Jesus reappear in a physical form or as a spirit? Either position is supported by Scripture. Having Doubting Thomas place his fingers on Jesus’ side where he was pierced during the crucifixion is an interpretation that suggests a physical presence following resurrection (John 20:27). But how can a body function after being dead for several days?
On the other hand, Jesus’s enigmatic command to Mary, “…do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father,” (John 20:16) and his passing through an actual locked door to appear twice to the disciples (John 20:19 and 26) suggest that his appearance was that of a ghost. Countless people from all cultures and across time report to have seen the recently departed, so could it not have been possible for those who were close to him to see Jesus as a “ghost” after his death? It is most likely that in the minds and eyes of his disciples Jesus appeared as a spirit that looked as real as a living person.
The significance of the resurrection is that Jesus did appear and his appearance is testimony that he lived beyond the grave and that we all will also. Near-death experiences suggest this actuality. The implications of the existence of life after death could persuade a modern, skeptical, doubting physical world to believe in a non-material world.
The Second Coming of Jesus. Orthodox Christian belief says that Jesus will return to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. Obviously, unless we believe that his resurrection appearances were the Second Coming, or that he came in the guise of the Holy Spirit, this has not occurred. (Interested readers may explore the recent conception of “realized eschatology.”) After waiting 2000, years this expectation should be dropped. See The End of the World, above.
The Devil. The Devil does not exist. However, as a metaphor, the concept is valuable. Our mind has a devil in it that often suggests that we engage in wrong actions or thoughts, which we should resist. The only power “the devil” has is the power of temptation, and it is a strong power, indeed.
Spirits. Jesus taught and some people believe that near-death experiences show that a spirit world exists. However, belief in spirits has caused much trouble in the past. If spirits exist, they do not have power. In truth, we know little about this and should not speculate much.
Predestination. Predestination is a very old concept common to many religions. It may be that God predestines some people for specific tasks (certainly Jesus and Paul are examples). It is also certain that God predestines every person for a particular life task. Many people testify about meaningful coincidences and even premonitions. But the concept of predestination is dangerous if we begin to think that God prefers one person or group over others.
It is also dangerous to believe, as some do, that everything that happens is ordained by God. It is abundantly clear that humans have free will and that neither goodness nor sin is predestined nor preordained by God.
Paul famously argued that God “hardened the heart” of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:3; Romans 9:17) to trigger the Exodus. People today should understand that the ancient Hebrew people ascribed the causation of all events to God. This famous assertion about Pharaoh releases him of any responsibility for his action -- God made him do it. Today we should vigorously assert that God never makes someone commit sin. Sin is a decision made by people who must be held responsible for their actions. Otherwise the moral order collapses, something that no one desires and that God certainly doesn’t want.
Election. Today the concept means that God elects or chooses some people to achieve salvation and that those not chosen will suffer damnation. In this sense it is close to the idea of predestination, except that it is specific to a person rather than something else such as one’s life mission or “calling.”
Election to salvation or damnation is most fully defined by Paul in Romans 9-11. However, the concept is inconsistent with belief in God’s gift of life to everyone, and with the certainty that God loves all people in his creation and wishes them all to become righteous. If God can best be described as both just and merciful, the concept of election is neither. To elect someone for damnation even before they are born is neither just nor merciful. See the discussion in “The Problem with Paul."
Historically, humans have been attracted to the idea of a national election. Many nations have believed that they were favored by God over others. The Japanese believed that they were descended from the Sun goddess Amaterasu, and were therefore better than anyone else. The Chinese believed that theirs was the Middle Kingdom, that is, higher than any other kingdom on earth, and just a bit lower than heaven; again, better than anyone else. Native American tribes often called themselves “The People” as contrasted with members of other tribes who were not seen as full human beings. The ancient Greeks saw the world as filled with barbarians whose language was simply “babble.” Some Arabs today say they are favored by God because they are descended (according to legend) from Abraham’s firstborn son. In the modern world, the British and French once felt they had been chosen by God to civilize the world by colonization. Slavs felt that they had a special mission to save Christianity from the materialism of the West. Americans once believed in “manifest destiny” or the favoritism of God in their quest to dominate North America. And of course, Jews have traditionally esteemed themselves as God’s Chosen People. These beliefs in an election that tells us that God loves some people groups and dislikes others is an egotistical, dangerous and erroneous belief. It should end.
The Chosen People. In the Bible, the ancestors of Abraham, the Hebrew people, are the Chosen People. It is written that God chose the Hebrew people to carry his message of spiritual salvation to the larger gentile world. That task would be to promulgate the Law and the words of the Prophets, that is, to promulgate advanced ideas of justice and mercy, and to welcome a Messiah who would either embody God’s teachings in an actual physical form a peaceful Messiah, or as a militant Messiah who would clear foreigners out of the Promised Land. Both predictions are found in scripture. However, the modern understanding does not indicate that God loves Jewish people more than other people; God loves all people.
It is possible that God chooses certain groups to introduce particular blessings to the world such as the Jewish people to be the vehicle of an exemplary code of laws as well as the rare practice of mercy. (Purely speculative modern examples: The British to begin God’s desire for the beginnings of modern electoral rule, and for the beginning of the understanding of a “world village” through its empire, as we see it today. The Americans to show how popular rule could be possible over a large area – once considered impossible -- and to show how science and industry can bring a better material life.) However, all such speculation must cease when one begins to feel pride about one’s “election.” These are responsibilities and not a sign of God’s special favor. Pride is not called for; the designated group should feel blessed to have been chosen to bring a gift to the world.
Christians today should consider the view that once a group of people brings a gift of God to the world, the world will accept and appropriate the new conception, ending the special status of the original group. For instance, popular governments are now found world-wide, as is science and industry. Original Hebrew conceptions of justice and mercy are widely accepted and have even advanced beyond the Ten Commandments (for instance, should there be an Eleventh Commandment against rape?) Pride is out of order.
Having completed their mission, therefore, Jews should no longer view themselves as the Chosen People. This is not to suggest any anti-Semitism. God loves Jews as he loves all people. A special homeland for Jews, for instance, may be called for in light of thousands of years of [Christian] persecution, but calls to restore the Temple as if Jews are still the Chosen People waiting for a militant Messiah (who would presumably clear the land of non-Jews) should be rejected by both Christians and Jews.
Calling/Talents/Gifts. Paul instructs us that God gives spiritual gifts to people and that he gifts everyone with at least one special talent. From that we can affirm that God calls everyone to exercise that gifted talent during their lives. Some people may have more than one strong talent. A gift may be recognized when someone comments, “How do you do that? How wonderful!” and the person responds, “I don’t know; I just do it.” God gives us all talents in order to allow us to live fulfilled lives, and so that we can be a blessing to others. The list of talents is long: a special aptitude in science, engineering, or mathematics; a special way with old people or young people; a gift of leadership; a Midas touch in finance or business; a sense of guardianship leading to a vocation in the military or police, or in legal defense or prosecution; a gift of humor. Writing is often spoken of as a calling. Teaching and preaching are callings. One may be gifted with a special talent in logic or art.
It is possible to ignore one’s gifts, which can lead to a sense of emptiness and the belief that life is meaningless. A false attraction to something such as money or status can prevent one from exercising one’s gifts. This may be the reason why Jesus was so negative in general about wealth.
Jesus’ teachings. Jesus exaggerated, a technique he used as a teacher to leave a strong impression on his audience, and indeed, exaggeration is effective in the printed word as well. Remember that His main point underlies the exaggeration
A lesson about forbearance might be taught in the following words: “When faced with a slight or an outright insult, do not lash back. You will say things in anger and make the situation even worse, perhaps make a fool of yourself or make it appear that you are the offender. Remember, some things said and done are not even intentional. Others are small. For almost all of these things, simply ignoring them is the best policy. If it continues, speak gently to the person. If things don’t improve, then distance yourself from the offender.”
Over time, such a long, complex directive would probably become muddled or lost. Instead Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.” Such a phrase is memorable and shocking and captures an audience’s attention so that they understand the underlying message: ignore slights; be peaceful. And Jesus admonishes us to discern how to interpret his general commands when he says, “…judge for yourselves what is right” (Luke 12:57). He wants his audience to think about and remember what he has said.
“Love your enemy” is a similar command. It shocks. It is also almost impossible to do. “Respect your enemy” would be a more realistic direction. But this also temporizes and could be muddled over time. So Jesus gives us the ultimate directive that shocks itself into our memory and shows us the difficulty of acting on his words. This is effective teaching.
The Christian World View. Life tends to grind people down. Old age tends to end in a cynical, pessimistic, or jaded outlook. This is not God’s intention for people. Life should always be seen as a blessing and a gift to be enjoyed. All people should engage fully in life rather than hide or seek security. Worship services should uplift everyone for the coming week. We should understand that there is a God who cares about people, who helps us when the metaphorical rain pours down on our lives and washes others away who have not availed themselves of His teachings and grace.
Our lives should be lives of service to others, to help build God’s Kingdom here on earth. We should not dedicate our lives to play and distractions. We need to recreate and rest, but we should not spend every free moment in playing golf or watching television. We should not indulge in luxuries.
We should understand that God wants us to find happiness, not defined as laughter and joking, but rather as a feeling of deep contentment. This website holds that happiness is found by doing God’s will for each one of us: to respect others, to restrain our anger, to hold no grudges, to avoid identifiable sin, to do one’s special “calling,” and, for most people, to raise children to honorable adulthood as a top priority, and to have a prayer life. These things bring happiness.